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Do you need a server?

Spending money on a server can save more cash elsewhere

Sometimes you have to spend money to save money. A server may seem like a significant outgoing, but as US talk-radio host Kim Komando explains, it's an investment that pays off well over time.

When my radio show and company started to grow, my staff did, too. I knew I needed a server to manage my network - it was becoming too difficult to share information.

Quote�A server is designed to allow many users access at one time without any decrease in performance.�End Quote

At the time, I was using a peer-to-peer network: each computer communicated with the others through a hub. That was fine for sharing an internet connection and transferring files. But productivity came to a squelching halt when more than one person needed access to the same file. It got very frustrating very quickly asking someone down the hall to close our database so that I could update it.

A server is designed to allow many users access at one time without any decrease in performance. It made a big difference for me. So how do you know it's time to purchase a server? Ask yourself these questions:

Are there gaps in your workflow?

Do two or more people use the same database?

Would operations slow down or stop, even for a small amount of time, if one computer were to crash?

Do you or your employees need access to email and files on the road?

If you answered yes to any of the above, it's time to talk to a consultant or IT partner. They will evaluate your current and future needs and make implementation recommendations.

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Maximise the advantages

There are two huge advantages to integrating a server into your network - faster workflow and tighter security.

By centralising databases and files, it's easier to manage, exchange and share information between workstations. As an example to illustrate this, let's look at an insurance company with three claims adjusters. Without a server, each adjuster would be responsible for specific claims. Adjuster 1 would handle last names beginning with A-I; adjuster 2 takes J-Q; and adjuster 3 gets R-Z.

That's inefficient if adjuster 2 is bogged down with claims, and adjusters 1 and 3 have light workloads. And when one goes on holiday, the other two will constantly be running to their absent colleague's desk to look up information. A server and shared database eliminates all of this. Any of the three adjusters would be able to assist any client.

And by consolidating things like your user data and email on the server, you can implement good security practice on a user-by-user or a network-wide level. For example, you could filter out virus-infected email before it ever reaches users' inboxes, minimising the risk of infection.

Recognise the costs

Quote�An entry-level server, costing maybe a few hundred pounds, should be fine for most firms with 10 or fewer employees.�End Quote

All these advantages come at a price. Purchasing a server - hardware and software - is a serious investment.

An entry-level server, costing maybe a few hundred pounds, should be fine for most firms with 10 or fewer employees. Larger businesses should consider a general purpose server, with more memory, more than one processor, more than one hard disk, and naturally a more expensive price tag.

Unlike desktop PCs, most servers do not come with an operating system as standard, although you should look out for package deals which may offer a healthy discount. Watch out for the thorny issue of user licences. Microsoft's Windows Small Business Server 2003, available in 'standard' and 'premium' versions, includes licensing for up to five users to log into and use the server. If you have more employees, you'll need more licenses.

You'll probably need a consultant, too, if you don't have an experienced network administrator. Installation and troubleshooting can be complex. But once you're up and running, you may be able to manage the server in-house.

Not too little, not too much

A desktop PC can act as a server with the proper software. However, this usually isn't a good solution. Purpose-built servers are designed to be reliable. If a part fails, it can often be replaced without taking the server down.

Large corporations have dedicated servers. Individual servers perform a single action - web hosting, email, database management, and so on. This would be overkill for many small companies.

Most server operating systems have a small-business version, which allows a single server to perform many functions. For example, Windows Small Business Server 2003 Premium Edition acts as a printer, file, email, web and relational database server.

Learn the basics

Quote�Learn your networking basics.�End Quote

Even if you are completely clueless about networks and servers, force yourself to learn.

I once hired a man to take care of my network and servers for me. The network started crashing and internet access was patchy on good days. One day, I found him sleeping in the server room. His head was resting on a pile of books on hacking. Realising I didn't know any of the administrative passwords, I asked him to show me everything he had been doing. Then I showed him the door.

Let this be a lesson to all. Even if your eyes glaze over when you hear words like net congestion, learn your networking basics. You don't have to understand the inner workings of everything. But you must know enough to ask pertinent questions.

What next?

See how a network can help in practice - read the story of how Lincolnshire St. John Ambulance benefited from their new system.

Still not sure if a server's for you? Answer a few questions and we'll help you decide.

Want to know more about what server software can do? Find out more about Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003.

Kim Komando writes about workplace technology and security issues. She's the host of the USA's largest talk-radio show about computers and the internet, and writes a syndicated column for more than 100 Gannett newspapers and for USA Today. Send an email to subscribe to her free weekly email newsletter.

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